Before the last leaf fell, she would go. Climb out of this bed. Crawl down the narrow staircase. Slam the door on sadness.
An ancient maple branch hung just outside her window, its bark as wrinkly and lined as an old woman's hand. If she didn't get out of here soon her own smooth skin would wrinkle like that, and then she'd blow away. Follow all those leaves that had already drifted past the long panes of her window, down to the unseen ground below.
So she'd set a deadline for herself: be gone before the last leaf falls. And every day her tree limb had shed more of its leafy cover, until this morning there were just a few stubborn ones left. Six-no, seven. That curled up brown one still dangled right above the sill. How did it keep hanging on?
That's what Henry told her to do-just keep hanging on. Since she'd lost the baby, everything that didn't bother him-everything, really-rubbed as raw against her as that tree's scratchy bark. He said he understood, told her he was sad too. But last night he'd laughed at the TV-laughed! So loud she'd heard him through the closed door of their bedroom. Laughed, only forty-two days and nights after their son or daughter had been flushed away.
The wind must be out of the east again-the closest twig tapped on her window in the gusts, shaking free the leaf at its very tip. After twizzling red across the left window pane the leaf disappeared, leaving behind a bare stem that bent like a beckoning finger.
Six left. Almost time to go.
Not back to Mamma, who worked too hard pretending to be thirty-five to welcome home a twenty-nine year old daughter. Anyway the rattling minivan in the driveway wouldn't make it that far-even if she could screw up the nerve to drive it again.
Life was so simple for the old maple-no need to go anywhere. All it had to do was sprout yellow-green buds that opened into jagged leaves that danced and shimmered until turning yellow-gold-red and dropping to the ground. Oh-the big red one at the top! It looked so strong, but it must've just lost its grip-only five left now. She chewed at the edge of her thumbnail, afraid to look away.
She'd loved Henry's easy charm when they first met. "It's fine just the way it is," he'd say, looking at a drawing she'd thought was only half finished. And then she would see it that way too.
But now nothing was fine anymore. If only he'd throw something, or yell at her, or cry. Instead he got up, went to work, came home, made dinner. Sat on the couch, laughing at stupid sitcoms.
If she ever had a daughter, she would welcome her home no matter what. Wrap her in a tight hug, tell her she loved her-even if the girl smelled of cigarettes or cheap beer or the tired leather of some greasy boy's car.
And she'd never ever tell her baby to get rid of a baby, like Mamma had. Empty hands wrapped around her empty belly, forming a bittersweet bump under the quilt.
She'd run away once before, from Mamma to Henry-she couldn't go back! But she had to get out of here. And there was nowhere else to go.
Maybe Mamma had stopped lying about her age.
Yeah, right. And maybe those last five leaves would never fall.
Just the other night she'd tried to explain to Henry. Tearing her thoughts away from the unseen branch outside the window, she'd rolled onto her side.
"Maybe I'm being punished," she whispered. "For that other-" she'd stopped.
Henry didn't know about the other baby. They'd met just after, and she didn't want to scare away the cute guy with the collared shirt by confessing how stupid she'd been. Stupid to get herself knocked up-even stupider to listen to Mamma.
When she didn't answer him, Henry patted the shoulder of the flannel nightgown that protected her raw skin from his touch.
"It'll be fine," he'd said, rolling away from her. "Just keep hanging on."
A flash of red brought her gaze back to the window-two leaves racing each other out of sight. That left three.
Which one would be last? That little guy dancing side to side like a bobblehead doll? The tiny one just above the flaking paint of the sill that had been the first to turn bronze, then red, then curled up cakey brown? Or maybe the last green leaf-
Bobblehead down. Only green and curly brown to go.
Mamma was really the only option-she just needed a plan. She used to be so good at planning, remembering to go to the grocery store last so the frozen stuff didn't melt. Growing up, the paper bags would've all soaked through by the time Mama stopped by the drugstore, the liquor store, the-
One more down! So that stubborn curly brown leaf had hung on the longest. No time to plan-she'd just climb into the minivan, crank the starter and hope it caught. But first she had to climb out of this bed.
She tossed the covers off her legs. Curled bare toes away from chilly linoleum. Tugged her nightgown straight. Took one step, toward the stairs.
And behind her, the last leaf fell.
Causes Carol CRONIN Supports
Jamestown Historical Society, Dutch Island Lighthouse Society, Our Sisters School, Piers Park Sailing Center